Archive for March 15th, 2015

March 15, 2015

Mahesh Rao, The Smoke is Rising

“But is it SF?” is probably the “will it blend?” of reviewing, but I find myself prone to doing it anyway.

From this week’s column.


“But is it science fiction?” I asked. I came to Mahesh Rao’s The Smoke is Rising with something of the single-minded purpose of the genre fan who above everything else wants to know whether she can claim this shiny new thing for her camp. In my defence, the blurb with its claim that “the future is here. India has just sent its first spacecraft to the moon, and the placid city of Mysore is gearing up for its own global recognition with the construction of HeritageLand – Asia’s largest theme park” does rather make this a plausible question to ask.

But what The Smoke is Rising is is a novel about modernity and change. And so in the grand tradition of novels about modernity and change it is set in a city (Mysore) whose landscape is being radically altered; its narrative is fractured, skipping between the perspectives of several loosely-connected characters as they go about their lives; the city itself, to resort to that cliché, might be an important character in its own right. Many of these characters are superbly done—in most cases too little time is spent with them for any real insight, but Rao does pick up on all sorts of details that ring true, rendering many of their insights darkly humorous without ever poking fun. By degrees it becomes clear that the narrative keeps returning to three women who are negotiating this changing city: Susheela is a well-off aging widow who finds that she continues to need intellectual, cultural and sexual stimulus even after her husband’s death.  Uma is her domestic help, who lives in a world of reserved female friendships and unpredictable men. Mala is the wife of an older bureaucrat named Girish, outwardly an ideal husband. Girish would risk falling into caricature were it not for the fact that we are given his perspective at the beginning of the book—he’s not monstered for us and so the moment of revelation is as shocking as it needs to be.

What ties these stories together, however, is the ongoing project to modernise the physical terrain of Mysore; landscaping, new housing developments, shopping centres, fountains to make the lake look like Geneva, many at the cost of the local farmland. Most important of these is HeritageLand, a theme park where “cutting edge technology could harness the drama of the ancient epics”—mechanical Garudas, a Yamaraja Monorail, ample merchandising opportunities—the city’s modernisation thus tied up in this attempt to preserve its heritage. Everyone in the world ought by now to have gathered that India, like most countries, contains elements of the old and the new juxtaposed and that there’s nothing particularly incongruous or thinkpiece-worthy about any of this. Rao does rather belabour the point—the new Museum of Folklore boasts “a modernist design [and thus] lack of harmony between the exterior of the museum and its collections of tribal and folk art from all over India”.

But there’s something else going on in this relationship between old and new, and I think it comes back to the character Venky Gowda’s vision for HeritageLand and the possibilities inherent in using “cutting-edge” technology to validate Hindu myth. It’s telling that most of his ideas have their bases in myth rather than history—history doesn’t offer technology the opportunities to impress that myth does, for one thing. But this is also a time in which “Ancient Indians had space travel and plastic surgery” is not something that is only said by that one angry uncle at a party and this too is significant. Those who insist on our ancient possession of nuclear weaponry and the like are implicitly suggesting that the authority conferred upon these stories by the aura of Science validates them in some way. It’s no accident that the blurb I quoted earlier mentions India’s ventures into space exploration, then, because The Smoke is Rising becomes fundamentally a book about our changing relationship with technology.

It’s not science fiction though.